Building a parking garage that fits

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on August 4, 2016.

The former Luff's parking garage at 54 Washington Street (Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in July 2016)

The former Luff’s parking garage at 54 Washington Street
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in July 2016)

In last week’s Townsman, we learned that a proposal to construct a three-level parking garage on River Street in Lower Falls has been revived after a 16-year period of dormancy. (It failed at Annual Town Meeting in 2000, not in 1999 as reported.)

Please understand. This isn’t a commentary on whether the parking garage should be built. Answering that question requires further study of, among other things, whether the additional parking capacity of approximately 86 spaces justifies the cost, as well as the impact of a parking garage on both parking and traffic in Lower Falls.

Rather, this article attempts to provide a way forward in addressing concerns that Town Meeting members raised in 2000 regarding the impact a parking garage would have on the character and aesthetics of Lower Falls. (The other major source of concern in 2000 was the effect that a parking garage would have on a controversial proposal to build a Stop & Shop on the current site of Waterstone at Wellesley. Obviously not a problem we have to deal with anymore.)

Let’s first turn to a 1997 comprehensive report conducted by the Town entitled “Wellesley Lower Falls — Zoning, Urban Design and Landscape Guidelines.” It was within this report that a series of recommendations were given regarding future development in Lower Falls. The relevant one here is the first recommendation listed under new construction: “The design of proposed new construction should acknowledge and respect the surrounding existing patterns of development, and should be such that those desirable existing patterns are complemented and strengthened.” In other words, it needs to be context sensitive.

What does “context sensitive” even mean? Basically, this is the essence of planning. How do we grow as a town and allow for development without destroying the existing character that makes Wellesley so attractive and desirable?

It would be so much easier if this town were a slum or characterless. We could then start fresh and build more or less whatever. But Wellesley’s not a slum and its attractive character is one of the main reasons that so many people choose to live here. We therefore need to be smart when developing (or redeveloping) properties and consider how a proposed building or structure would fit within its surroundings.

So back to the parking garage. The issue regarding its appearance, as it was in 2000, isn’t so much about the garage as a whole, but rather the exterior that can be seen from River Street. Let’s face it. A typical parking garage is unattractive, just a large mass with little architectural distinctiveness. Therefore the critical question is: How can the design of this exterior reflect (and enhance) the existing character of Lower Falls?

The answer requires an understanding of the historic character of this village. It was over 300 years ago that colonial settlers first arrived here, realizing the steep drop in the river’s elevation created a great opportunity for industrial activity. Indeed, over the next two centuries, industry in Lower Falls thrived, both on the Wellesley and Newton sides of the river. That would change, however, during the mid-20th Century, as industrial activity gave way to non-manufacturing commercial use.

Despite this, much of the original character of the small village remains, largely because so many of the older buildings have been repurposed. Immediately adjacent to the River Street parking lot is John Pulsifer’s wheelwright and carriage painting shop, now Express Gourmet. At the end of Mica Lane sits the former factory of the Billings & Clapp Co. where chemicals and pharmaceuticals were manufactured during the late 1800s (and mica insulation in the early 1900s). Across the river in Newton, Boyden Hall — originally the village’s grocery and social hall — is now Lower Falls Wine Co. Further east, at Gregorian’s Oriental Rugs, is the former Crehore paper mill. That’s just scratching the surface.

One more relevant example: 54 Washington Street, where Spivack’s Antiques was located for decades and which now houses medical offices. You may not know it, but this structure was actually Lower Falls’ first parking garage and automobile repair shop, built in 1913 by local resident Abraham Luff. And yet it was (and still is) quite an attractive building. Distinctive facade. Waterstruck brick. Windows with stone sills and arched lintels. A few changes to its original appearance, but still looking good after 103 years.

This isn’t to suggest that a parking garage on River Street should resemble 54 Washington Street. Parking garages today are completely different than they were in 1913. But one can design a garage — at least the River Street facade — that has this level of detail and respects the village’s historic character without significant additional costs.

We should definitely keep this in mind if the proposal to construct a parking garage moves forward. After all, it should help address many of the concerns raised at Town Meeting 16 years ago.